Pennsylvania’s nuclear operators said they are taking extra steps to safeguard the health of workers involved in springtime shutdowns for refueling, following the positive testing of two workers for COVID-19 at Exelon’s Limerick plant in Montgomery County.
The cases of the two workers – who Exelon said Monday were resting at home – raised concerns that the hundreds of contractors who are needed to refuel the plants every 18-24 months would be unable to effectively practice social distancing, and would end up infecting each other and the wider community.
Unit 1 at Limerick completed its outage on Monday morning after 16 days, said David Marcheskie, a spokesman for Exelon, which also owns two nuclear units at Peach Bottom in York County and the now-closed Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg. The Limerick unit is the only Pennsylvania Exelon plant that was refueled this spring, Marcheskie said.
Responding to concerns that the workers, some of whom were from out of state, could spread COVID-19 after leaving the refueling operation, Marcheskie said the company can’t prevent them leaving the area.
“Exelon can’t force contract workers to remain in the area after the outage against their will. We just don’t have that authority,” he said in a statement. “These workers also are considered essential by the U.S. government and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, just like first responders, health care workers, and grocery store employees. These specialized workers perform tasks that are vital to the nation’s power grid and they must be released to perform similar work at other plants.”
In 2018, Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants produced 39 percent of the state’s electricity, compared with 36 percent for natural gas and about 21 percent for coal, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The nuclear plants produce more than 90 percent of the state’s carbon-free electricity.
At the Beaver Valley nuclear plant in Shippingport, Beaver County, unit 2 was taken out of service at 12:01 a.m. on April 12 for the replacement of about a third of its 157 fuel assemblies, said Jason Copsey, a spokesman for the plant’s owner, Energy Harbor.
He said on Tuesday that no workers had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the company was requiring crews to practice social distancing except where it is not practical for a specific task, in which case protective clothing is issued.
Medical staff take workers’ temperatures and check for other signs of the virus during every shift, and the company has reduced work activities and required resources by about 30 percent compared with a regular outage, Copsey said.
“Energy Harbor has developed a comprehensive response plan and implemented measures to ensure the health and safety of our employees, contractors and communities,” he said. He declined to say how many workers were involved or how long the outage would last.
The only other nuclear plant being refueled this spring is one of two units at the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station, which is run by Talen Energy in Luzerne County and began its outage on March 28. Taryne Williams, a spokesperson, said the company is working to prevent any outbreak of COVID-19 by conducting daily health screenings of workers before they enter the site; increased cleaning and sanitation; employment of health professionals on site; and a requirement for social distancing.
Williams said the outage is being conducted after talks with stakeholders including the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and county emergency management agencies.
“Given the nature of our business, the company maintains robust plans and contingencies to ensure we are prepared to operate safely and reliably when faced with challenges including a public health crisis,” Williams said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health has the authority to require operators to take all appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during refueling, said Nate Wardle, a spokesman. But he declined to say whether the department had required energy companies to take specific health measures during the current outages, or whether it was satisfied that they were doing so.
“The state would be responsible for ensuring health and safety from a community point of view, although private companies should be taking steps to protect their employees,” Wardle said. “The department has the ability to oversee the health and wellbeing of all Pennsylvanians. If we feel that that is not occurring, we can either work with a facility to ensure they are heeding safe practices, send a letter of enforcement requiring them to heed safe practices, or take other steps, as needed.”
At the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, officials require operators to comply with health and safety standards but only as they pertain to radiological matters, said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.
“The NRC’s standards protect public health and safety from radiological consequences, and that sets a boundary on our authority,” Sheehan said. “The agency would have no basis to stop or prevent an outage if that work conflicts with an order issued by a state and/or a locality in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
He said the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration covers worker safety in relation to COVID-19. That agency did not respond to requests for comment.
“When it comes to COVID-19, we are obviously paying close attention to the way it is impacting safe plant operation, but OSHA requirements for the protection of worker health would be applicable when it comes to addressing protection from COVID-19,” Sheehan said.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.